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October 2015 Edition

Published monthly by Artists of Utah, a non-profit organization   

Susan Harris in her studio on the campus of Southern Utah University. Photo by Shawn Rossiter.

Artist Profile: Cedar City
Mysterious Purpose
The life and art of Susan Harris

It's a common trope, the artist who tells you they began their career at an early age, attracting the accolade of adults when they were still preschoolers, or executing their first masterpiece on the dining room wall, to the—slightly proud—dismay of their parents. There was no such beginning for Susan Harris, professor of ceramics at Southern Utah University, who came to her craft well into adulthood. In fact, had it not been for a genetic mutation passed on by her Dutch ancestors, Harris might never even have touched clay.  

Harris spent her early years as an Air Force brat, but her family eventually settled on Long Island, where her childhood was steeped in music. "It was my passion. And I was good at it," she says, her New York roots evident in her matter-of-fact manner and the nasal tones of her speech. The flute was her instrument and she was good at it, good enough to go to Indiana University on a full music scholarship. But in her sophomore year at IU she began having trouble hearing. After repeated visits to specialists, she was told her hearing loss was hereditary, and that it would be progressive, complete, and inevitable: a rude awakening from the dream she had pursued since she was 8.

Artist Profile: Salt Lake City
Dance Experiment
Linda C. Smith and 50 years of Repertory Dance Theatre

In photographs of Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) taken in the 1970s Linda C. Smith is a slim, regal young woman, a bit sharp-angled reminiscent of  Martha Graham, her long, dark hair ironed straight and parted down the middle in the fashion of the day. Her expression is soulful and serious but with a determined set to the jaw—she looks like the kind of person who might dedicate her life to Truth and Beauty, and as things turned out, that’s exactly what she did. In 1966, Smith became one of the original eight founders of RDT, and 50 years later she is still with the company as Executive/Artistic Director. During those years Smith has guided the company through crisis and opportunity and achieved her dream to be a dancer, to work with the finest choreographers and to do it all right here in Utah.

Linda C. Smith is a Utah native (she went to West High School) and she says her life as a dancer started when she was 2 1/2 years old, though her professional career didn’t get off the ground until a few years later when she was 13 and went on national tour to the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts with Virginia Tanner’s renowned Children’s Dance Theatre, a documentary photographer from Life magazine in tow. Although she was young and from Utah, Smith managed to be right in the middle of things during the formative period of modern dance; with Tanner as a mentor, she had opportunities to study with greats like Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, José Limón, and Helen Tamiris.  At the University of Utah, Smith’s teachers included local legends like Elizabeth Hayes, Joan Woodbury, Shirley Ririe, and even Willem Christensen, even though back then it was unusual for modern dance students to cross over into ballet.  In 1965, Smith became the first student to graduate from the University of Utah with a Fine Arts degree in dance (as opposed to physical education/dance—she had no interest whatsoever in teaching girls to play volleyball).  Soon after graduation she followed her then-husband, Utah artist Tony Smith, to Detroit, and it seemed her brilliant dance career might be over or at least interrupted, but then something amazing and wonderful happened. As Smith tells it,

In 1965, I was standing in my kitchen in Detroit holding my 3-week-old son when I got a phone call. It was Dr. Gerald Freund from the Rockefeller Foundation inviting me to be a founding member of a new professional modern dance company.

“I hope this isn’t some kind of a joke?” I said.

Exhibition Review: Logan
Sacred Dreaming
Abstraction in Australia's West Desert

Sometime in August of 1972, the Aboriginal artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula sat down to work in the recently dedicated “painting room” in Papunya, a government settlement in the vast and barren Western Desert region of Australia. This room had been set aside to give the adult men a place where they could make art without violating the taboos governing who could see or participate in their activities, which feature secret religious practices and stories considered dangerous to the uninitiated. Although the men of Papunya had only been using permanent paints on stable panels for a matter of months, the painting he made that August combined unexcelled aesthetic sophistication with accurate depictions of powerful rituals. Employing visual symbols developed for drawing on sand, carving on wood, or painting on oiled skin, it maps geographical data so accurately that his peers could instantly recognize a ritual, or the location where a specific story takes place.

The stylistic refinements developed at Papunya, which formed the foundation of Aboriginal art, run the gamut of abstraction from mythic human figures to symbolic shapes able to summarize an action, who does it, and even its purpose. The men of Papunya could, and often did, fold this entire range into a single panel, and indeed early collectors were drawn to their eyewitness accounting of Aboriginal life. However, in 1971, when the settlement school’s art teacher Geoffrey Bardon gave painting materials to the men of Papunya, no one had foreseen a problem with making permanent these physically ephemeral details of their lives. By late 1972, though, excess candor was becoming a serious problem. Each painter was the oldest member of his family group and, in accordance with tradition, the family’s culture bearer. Until they started painting, there had been no need for negotiation about which truths were personal and what was communal property. But in order to make art that mattered to them, they needed to include sensitive materials, including images and information reserved to them by their common social roles that they were expected to safeguard. Their first real dilemma was how to keep the content without violating taboos.

“Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” was painted during this crisis, and aside from the importance of its subject, what makes it especially noteworthy is that while the artist was painting it, someone took a photo of him in which the work in progress is clearly visible. It doesn’t look anything like the finished painting, which at the Harrison hangs beside the photo, and yet with careful study, it’s possible to see that the organizing composition is identical. This contrast hints at the solution to the challenge of painting secrets that the artists were working out while it was taking form. What happened between the two versions not only allowed the men of Papunya to go on painting, but permitted the spread of painting throughout the Western Desert.

Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, 1972, by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula.  estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.
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